Our Toil Respite Only: Woolf, Diamond and the Difficulty of Reality

MLN 130 (5):1-28 (2015)
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In this essay, I read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse together with philosopher Cora Diamond’s writing on literature and moral life, writing marked by her inheritance from Wittgenstein. I first attend to Woolf’s commitment (one she shares with Wittgenstein) to grappling with what I take to be signature issues of modernism: question, quest, and a longing for vision or revised understanding as a way of confronting the difficulty of reality. I then probe Woolf’s engagement with these issues by reading her novel in light of Diamond’s essay “The Difficulty of Philosophy and the Difficulty of Reality.” Diamond’s insights about literature’s capacity for ethical instruction, and her discussion in that essay of the experience of an ordinary sublime so painful or astonishing that it resists our understanding and categories of thought, illuminate a new philosophical context in which to understand more clearly and profoundly the stakes and aims of Woolf’s novel. Reading Woolf alongside Diamond also prompts us to recognize important ways in which matters that lie at the heart of To the Lighthouseintersect with the Wittgensteinian preoccupations that inform Diamond’s own thinking—concerns about the ethics of difficulty; skepticism about what other people think and feel; the search for communicative and existential clarity; the capacity of literature and fairy tale to convey a sense of beauty or of the “terrible” in the world; the status of expressions of our ethical experience as necessarily nonsensical; a longing for the sense of wholeness, transformative understanding, wonder, safety, and peace to stave off illusion or despair. One important subsidiary effect of looking at Woolf and Diamond together is that doing so also allows us to make significant oblique connections between Woolf’s thinking and Wittgenstein’s, connections that continue to bring into focus the philosophical sympathies that attest to the mutual relevance of their peculiar brands of modernism.
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